The Gray and the Green

Stories From West Point, Between the Wars

"Every male member of my family has served," says Mobbs, the son of a D.C. lawyer. "I'm not going to tell you I joined because of 9-11," he says. "But I did know I would get to play an active role." Mobbs attended Tulane University for a semester, and then dropped out, before enlisting with the Army Rangers. While in Afghanistan, he applied to West Point, and after a month in Iraq, he was accepted. He joined a handful of other plebe cadets with combat experience; in military jargon, they're called "prior service."

Mobbs has mixed feelings about West Point's ability to prepare future military leaders; as a good soldier, though, he's loath to express these thoughts (and indeed, would get in trouble for doing so). He does say there are too many officers on campus, far more than soldiers see in the real army. "When my commanding officer was around, it was 'game on,' " he says. "Here, you're saluting every minute." Mobbs also says some of the battlefield tactics taught in "Beast Barracks"—the training course cadets take when they first arrive at West Point—were completely different from the versions he drilled in the army.

"It's not West Point that produces good officers," he says. "It's up to that individual."

The new West Point cadet, raised on Hellfire sandwiches
photo: Scott Anger
The new West Point cadet, raised on Hellfire sandwiches

Mobbs says it was his intention not to tell his fellow cadets that he was prior service. "I wanted to see if I could lead on my own," he says. But word got out, and upperclassmen started peppering him with questions about his combat experiences. Caleb Goble, also a prior-service Ranger, says the same thing happened to him. "During the summer, it got annoying," Goble says. "I try not to be mean about it."

Colonel William Taylor says the recently leaked memo by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld provides a perfect opportunity for rigorous discussion at West Point. "Debating is the essence of democracy," he says.

And Taylor should know. Now retired from the army, Taylor taught debate and national security studies at West Point from 1965 to 1981. His students included Wesley Clark. Norman Schwarzkopf was a colleague. He tells long off-color stories that he'd rather not see in print.

But Taylor is clear—and very public—on one subject in particular. "We did not do a good job of preparing our students for Vietnam," he says in a phone interview with the Voice.

He believes a tension between the academic and tactical instruction at the academy meant students back then took away conflicting messages. The tacticians' motto of "Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full"—translation: "whatever you say"—underpinned the pedagogy.

"My guys were not trained to say that," he says. "They were trained to say, 'Yes sir, I understand. And frankly, I disagree.' " Taylor wanted to teach his students about Vietnam, a move resisted by the school's superintendent in that era.

"It was not a happy time," Taylor recalls. "But I wouldn't be deterred. I said 'Guys. We have a problem here. We're about to lose the war in Vietnam. Let me tell you why.' " As a result of that war, Taylor says, West Point did become more open, and he thinks the tension between the disciplines has eased over time.

"There are questions that need to be debated," Taylor says. "What is a victory? How do we measure progress toward that victory? You don't indoctrinate cadets. You teach. You debate."

Little in the first half of Major Messitt's Wednesday-morning class suggests that America today is fighting two wars and has more of its soldiers deployed abroad than at any time since Vietnam, or that the senior cadets in attendance—firsties, as they're called—are less than a year away from their likely assignments in Iraq, where their future colleagues are being killed at an alarming rate.

No, the cadence in the classroom—freewheeling and somewhat noisy—is unexpected for a course called "Transition to the Officer Corps." The conversation lurches from that hapless Chicago Cubs fan to Army football's game with Louisiana, then back to the hardships of military marriages and on again to the prospects for a Halloween candy fight.

"Quiet down," says Messitt, settling the room. "What's going on in Iraq?"

First, the worst news: A recent graduate, and friend to some of the students present, has been killed when his patrol was ambushed. The day's headlines, projected onto a screen at the front of a class, reveal another bombing in Baghdad. A new United Nations resolution is thought to have yielded mixed results for the United States. Messitt looks at the picture on the MSNBC homepage. "Who knew that there are Polish and Filipino soldiers in Iraq?" he asks.

Up on the "blackboard"—a course Web page projected onto a screen at the front of the class—Messitt posts documents for his class, including the National Security Strategy of the United States and the After-Action Report for the Third Infantry Division's mission in Iraq. Messitt told students the first document is George Bush's leadership philosophy. "There's a lot of nuance," he says. "It tells you what he goes to war for."

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